With growing demand from investors, customers and other stakeholders for companies to become net-zero and/or sell net-zero emission goods and services, there is increasing interest in the voluntary carbon market as a source of carbon offsets. This is because today, very few, if any, goods and services are provided without fossil fuels somewhere in their value chain. Simply storing goods in a warehouse puts fossil fuels into the value chain, because of the construction of the building. And even looking forwards, fossil fuels will remain embedded in global supply chains to some extent for several decades, if not a century.
The voluntary market has been slow to scale over the past two decades, but it is now growing rapidly. There have been ongoing concerns related to the quality of the carbon units that emerge from it. For example, do the carbon units represent real reductions? Would these reductions have happened anyway? Nevertheless, it is poised for more growth, driven by corporate commitments to achieve net-zero emission targets. This means that the voluntary market is poised to become a critical mechanism for helping deliver global emission reductions, to the extent that a special task force was created to address the concerns and put in place practices and approaches for rapid future scaling. The Taskforce was initiated by Mark Carney, UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance; is chaired by Bill Winters, Group Chief Executive, Standard Chartered; and is sponsored by the Institute of International Finance (IIF). The final report was released recently and you can find it here.
One of the many discussion points within the report is how a carbon unit should be viewed with regards actions already underway or planned within the host country for the project. For example, the report discusses the need for a future voluntary market governance body to consider whether or when it may be necessary for projects to demonstrate additionality to the Host Country’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement and the appropriate instruments to implement such a requirement (e.g. corresponding adjustments).
While the quality of carbon units is very important, some perspective on the role and shape of the voluntary market is also needed. The corresponding adjustment is a mechanism under the Paris Agreement to prevent double counting at country level and to maintain environmental integrity against the NDCs. The use of corresponding adjustments is set out clearly within Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. It is designed to work at country level where a defined NDC exists and I discussed this at some length in a 2020 post and in a 2019 post.
By contrast, the voluntary market operates at company level. The same emission activities (sinks and sources) can be viewed through two entirely different accounting approaches, one for countries and one for companies. So is the demand for Paris Agreement adjustments in the voluntary market mixing the voluntary and regulatory worlds in a way that is helpful or damaging to the voluntary market?
The voluntary market is a means of channelling capital into emission mitigation projects and it measures the results of that with the issuance of carbon credits that recipients can use as they see fit. Those carbon credits have no immediate value in a regulatory world as the recipient cannot use them to meet compliance obligations nor are they recognised by other jurisdictions. The recipient simply requires them to show that the sum total of their market and investment activities is net-zero emissions. This is a simple model, but one that has worked over time, albeit in a relatively limited way.
In the voluntary world, when a company sells a carbon neutral product in (say) the UK, there are emissions from the product in the UK and this is offset with a unit that might represent a sink from (say) forestry activity in (say) Kenya. These are combined to deliver the claim of carbon neutrality by the company in question. But that forestry activity will also lead to a larger sink in the Kenya official GHG inventory for their Paris Agreement commitments, thereby helping Kenya meet its NDC. Similarly, the emissions from the product use will likewise be counted in the UK inventory, setting back attainment of its NDC.
The two sets of accounts remain in good shape without a corresponding adjustment. Kenya measures its emissions and sinks and reports them under the Paris Agreement and the UK measures its emissions and sinks and similarly reports them. Even though the voluntary carbon neutral claim used a Kenya sink in the UK, the UK inventory doesn’t recognise it as it is counted in the Kenya inventory. Rather, the UK must report the product emissions in its NDC and take action to mitigate it such that their NDC goal is met.
Importantly, the company offering the carbon neutral product isn’t a country, it reports at a company level. The UK’s emission from the product the company is providing and Kenya’s sink from the company investment are added together by the company and reported as it’s footprint, which has nothing to do with the Paris accounting.
None of this is double counting, it’s dual accounting.
If however, the UK had used the Kenya sink and reported it under its inventory for the purposes of its NDC, then Kenya would need to do a corresponding adjustment. But this isn’t happening in the voluntary market.
Further, imagine what would be required if Kenya did need to commit to a corresponding adjustment for the use of its sink in the UK voluntary market. The company making use of the unit could ask the UK to accept the unit under Article 6 and have Kenya implement a corresponding adjustment, but the UK may not necessarily want it. So then the company would have to ask Kenya to do the corresponding adjustment anyway.
The sale in the voluntary market and the corresponding adjustment would require Kenya to find a further reduction somewhere in the economy to balance their NDC, which would create an economic cost beyond that which they had budgeted for the delivery of the NDC. While the project itself would benefit from the sale of the voluntary unit, the economy is penalised, which in turn would likely require the project developers to fund the difference. This then raises the cost of carbon units in the voluntary market and potentially diminishes investment into projects. It also means turning the voluntary market over to governments, because they will rightly seek scrutiny of local developments that result in changes to their Paris Agreement accounts.
The solution is to recognise that the voluntary market and the Paris Agreement are two distinct ways of looking at the same set of emitting activities and sinks. The voluntary market offers a mechanism for people and companies to invest in the attainment of NDCs through the purchase of carbon neutral goods and services. This is a positive development and it should be encouraged, particularly because some developing countries and most least developed economies, where many such voluntary market projects lie, are asking for help to finance their NDCs. Further, in the country where the carbon neutral goods and service are provided, the process raises emissions mitigation awareness. However, it will be essential to build understanding with voluntary market participants that the activity they are engaged in may be helping other countries attain their NDC and not necessarily the country they are living in. This can also help build wider appreciation for the role of carbon trading. But penalizing the voluntary market with requirements that stem from a completely different accounting structure may not be helpful and might have the perverse effect of slowing down emission reductions and choking off an expanding flow of climate finance into developing countries.
Eventually the voluntary market may merge into a framework regulated under Article 6, but for now these are two very different approaches to emissions management. Neither has matured yet, so an early melding of the two may not be in the best interests of overall carbon market development.